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7 Tips for International Negotiation: Understanding Cultural Nuances

Negotiating across cultural lines can be especially difficult for executives pursuing new partners and clients that reside in unfamiliar territory, so here are seven things to keep in mind when you sit down to talk turkey.

  1. Understand Social Distance

    In some Eastern cultures, personal space is observed differently than in the West. For example, in Saudi Arabia and many Asian countries, personal space is far more compact than in the United States or Europe, even between strangers.

    A way to gauge a culture’s approach to this is to watch what kind of distance people keep from one another in airports and train stations. You can get a good idea of what kind of personal space is the norm before you step into your first meeting by watching how people in these environments interact. This way, if your counterpart is standing close to you, it’s not going to catch you off guard and possibly trigger a reaction that may be considered offensive to the other party.

  2. Be Aware that Time has Different Meanings

    You should always look to be punctual when it comes to these types of meetings, but be cognizant that different cultures perceive time differently in terms of it being a priority. In the U.S., time is generally treated like a commodity. It has value, it can be wasted and being late is considered a faux pas in a business setting.

    In much of the rest of the world, time is simply something that happens and is often considered flexible. But it isn’t just about being punctual. Time can affect how things proceed throughout a negotiation. Asian cultures will generally take their time, whereas Americans tend to negotiate faster. In Japan, negotiation is seen as the beginning of a long-term relationship and those early meetings are the “getting to know you” phase. Efforts to speed things up can be misinterpreted as being rude or an attempt to hide something.

    A study conducted by Tufts University professor Jeswald W. Salacuse looked at how people of 12 different nationalities considered their relationship to time, revealing that Indian culture possesses the largest percentage of people who feel they have a low sensitivity to time.

  3. Know the Region

    Just as cultures differ from continent to continent, they may also be different from one country to the next. Adhering to good business etiquette in each location is a good practice, although this can sometimes be difficult. For example, African countries vary greatly in their approach to business due to their varying histories with colonization. In countries with a heavy influence from Islamic culture, long handshakes are common, whereas many southern African countries operate more like the Western countries that once colonized their land.

    In one place, it may be common to talk over one another, such as in Italy. But travel the short distance south to an African country and raising your voice is something to avoid, as is referring to a woman as “Miss.”

  4. Be Ready for Meal Time

    In negotiations or early business meetings, it’s not uncommon to break bread with one another, but understanding another culture’s customs in respect to dining is important. Eating too much can cause offense in many cultures, whereas Russian, Greek and Italian hosts may be offended if you eat too little.

    Beyond your portion size, mannerisms can play a key role and should be learned before dining with potential partners or clients. For example, in Asia, gesturing or pointing with chopsticks is inappropriate and they should never be stuck upright into a bowl of rice as it is considered an omen of death.

    Additionally, it’s a good idea to learn about discussions at the table. In some cultures, talking only occurs after the meal, while in others, socializing during a meal is perfectly fine, but talking business may not be.

  5. Dress Appropriately

    Certain cultures are far more formal when it comes to dress for negotiations or meetings. Wearing a full suit is common practice and the safest bet if you’re unsure about other parties’ cultural practices. How you dress, however, can be a strategic decision based on the situation at hand.

    According to the Wall Street Journal, sometimes the negotiations call for wearing something different in the fashion department to stand out in a sea of sport coats and freshly pressed slacks. During the IPO of Canadian yoga apparel company Lululemon Athletica Inc., deal teams showed up sporting yoga pants, sneakers and track suit tops in an attempt to “strike a brand-appropriate pose to win the company’s business.”

    While that approach is certainly bold and could play to your advantage, particularly if you’re wooing a fashion industry client, it may be seen as pandering or unprofessional and could backfire as it did in this case, where bankers showing up in tight fitting pants didn’t really play the way they’d hoped. Making such a decision requires a thorough knowledge of the other party’s culture. If unsure, erring on the side of caution and sticking to a suit is probably the best way to go.

  6. Be Mindful of How You Show Emotion

    Displays of emotion are seen differently depending on the culture. According to Salacuse’s study, Latin cultures ranked themselves highest with respect to emotionalism.

    Emotionalism is often thought to be a stereotype whether discussing Latin passion or the Japanese approach of hiding any sort of personal feelings. While much of it depends on personalities, the survey showed these stereotypes have some level of merit as the Japanese ranked themselves as the least emotional of all Asian nations. In Europe, the Germans and English were ranked as the least emotional.

    In any case, deal teams will want to familiarize themselves with their counterpart’s emotional tendencies and whether or not they’re likely to show up at the bargaining table.

  7. Communicate with Care

    This can be a difficult cultural variation to address. In some cultures, such as the United States, a direct approach that involves getting to the point and saying what you mean in a clear and concise manner is appreciated and common. In other countries, such as Japan or parts of the Middle East, vague comments or gestures may be used; however, if these cues are misinterpreted or not picked up on at all, it can cause problems with negotiations.

    In the case of Chinese negotiators, the use of the word “no” as a direct response could be seen as aggressive or rude. Instead, you’ll notice they use words that mean “no,” but are phrased in a different manner such as “we shall see.” Failure to understand this could cost time and money and prove to be a source of embarrassment for either party.

    When Israel and Egypt participated in peace treaty negotiations at Camp David in 1978, the Israelis’ style of direct communication clashed with the indirect forms of the Egyptians. The African country’s interpretation of their Israeli counterpart’s actions was deemed as an insult, while the Israelis found the Egyptians to be insincere and lacking transparency. 

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